In March 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the True/False Film Fest felt like the last dose of “normal.” Paste Magazine‘s write-up called it “The Best Last Festival Ever.” At the time, most of us weren’t sure when we would even feel safe enough to sit in a crowd of strangers to watch a film again. As we enter the third year of this pandemic, the future of film festivals is still often in a precarious position–the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was forced to pivot virtually just weeks out from its start due to a surge of the Omicron variant. But sometimes the stars align, and you can capture the magic once lost.
After a 2021 festival that was held in-person, albeit outdoors, and with a “Teleported” virtual option, True/False 2022 was back in nearly full force, and the excitement was palpable. Many of the films coming out of Sundance and elsewhere were playing in front of live audiences for the first time. It felt good to be around people again (with the necessary masking and vaccination protocols in place), engaging with films that just aren’t going to play the same way on your laptop screen or living room TV.
One of the shining examples of this is Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, which chronicles the lives and work of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Dosa makes use of the Krafft’s trove of documentary footage, shot while studying volcanoes around the world in their roles as chemist and geologist. This results in staggeringly beautiful images of volcanoes, their eruptions, and the aftermath, with inherently cinematic plumes of smoke and rivers of glowing red lava.
Often, these cinematic moments look like images ripped from a sci-fi film, with the Kraffts and their crew clad in silver heat-resistant suits. Then, when we see them away from the volcano and safe at base camp, they’re jauntily goofing around with their rotating crew of scientists, drawing to mind Jacques Cousteau or Wes Anderson’s fictionalized and loving homage, Steve Zissou. While much of this oscillates between awe-inspiring and gently humorous, Dosa also questions what drove these cinematic impulses in the Krafft’s work. While the Kraffts often considered themselves scientists first, not dyed-in-the-wool cineastes, capturing the unpredictable spectacle of volcanoes gave them the platform to educate their audiences and advocate for better safety measures in areas around possible eruptions. And while they were eventually killed during an eruption in Japan in 1991, their work has helped save countless lives.
While Fire of Love is fairly traditional as far as documentaries go, Sierra Pettengill’s more experimental film, Riotsville, USA, investigates the roots of police militarization by taking a look back at the lengths the American military took to prepare for the civil unrest of the late 1960s. The eponymous Riotsvilles were towns built by the military to simulate riots and train soldiers on supposed best practices for handling riots, often with bleachers full of military and police officers watching gleefully as soldiers play act both sides of a potential conflict, staging a kind of domestic war game. Pettengill not only uses archival footage of these training exercises, but also news footage from that time. These clips help to illustrate how the language around riots was adopted, how the militarization efforts were covered, and how this coverage helped sow seeds of fear in suburban America.
The masterstroke of Riotsville, USA is in its editing, with well-placed cards of text slotted in with archival footage offering key bits of context, such as how the production of tear gas originally violated global statues around chemical warfare but was given an exception because of its domestic law enforcement applications . After a wrenching performance of “Burn Baby Burn” by Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and Jimmy Collier, itself a response to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. on PBS precursor National Education Television, a text card grimly notes that the Ford Foundation pulled its funding over political complaints not long after the broadcast, effectively shuttering the network. Coverage of the unrest surrounding the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach is interrupted by ads for Union Carbide and Gulf, who directly benefited from these militarization efforts.
What’s truly chilling about Riotsville, USA is the way the footage Pettengill uses incisively captures the inherent disconnect in conversations about policing in America, specifically the way coverage of civil unrest is used to strike fear into the hearts of suburbanites living far from where the riots were happening. A news segment on a gun safety class for suburban women aiming to “protect themselves” when the riots come to their neighborhood is followed by interviews with Black residents of a nearby town, who fear their armed neighbors and note the glaring double standard. so often, Riotsville, USA captures a long history of people saying the quiet part out loud, making clear that there is still plenty of work to be done when it comes to addressing current issues of police militarization.
Ace Riotsville, USA tries to make sense of America’s current political situation, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa points his camera at the end of the USSR with his film Mr Landsbergis, which takes a deep dive into how Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. Loznitsa makes use of footage of demonstrations, political speeches, and legislative sessions alongside interview footage with the eponymous Vytautas Landsbergis, the mild-mannered music professor turned politician and Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania who helped drive the independence effort. Told over the course of four hours, the film is a comprehensive look at all of the political chess moves Landsbergis and other Lithuanian officials made as they deftly maneuvered their way to independence. Landsbergis himself is incredibly charismatic and candid, often digging into the minute details of clever tactics used to get Russian officials to recognize Lithuania as a sovereign nation. As a piece of recent history, the film also offers a valuable look at the politics and policy that are still playing out in Russia and former Soviet states today.
Mr Landsbergis was just one piece of a strong slate of contemporary programming from Eastern Europe, and the large shadow of the current situation in Ukraine was certainly present. Ahead of the fest, I chatted with fest programmer Eric Allen Hatch about this very topic and how watching and engaging with these films can help audiences better contextualize and humanize the people living there who don’t represent or stand for the actions of their government. Russian filmmaker Nastia Korkia’s GES-2, which follows the process of transforming a former power plant that powered the Kremlin into a public art space, was prefaced by an open letter from a number of Russian filmmakers condemning their government’s actions in Ukraine. Ruslan Fedotow, a filmmaker from Belarus, wore a Ukrainian flag T-shirt when introducing his film Where Are We Headed, a collage of vignettes showing life in and around the Moscow Metro system over the course of a year. “Now is probably not the best time for this film,” he noted with a bit of shrug and a wish that audiences still enjoyed the film. It was as if he felt like he shouldn’t be sharing his work with him at a time like this, that he maybe wasn’t saying enough. Even with that in mind, Where Are We Headed goes a long way to help offer a portrait of everyday life in Moscow, using the Metro as a nexus of overlapping universes. The post-film Q&A opened Fedotow up to a discussion that not only covered the film and daily Russian life, but politics and the evolving situation with Ukraine.
While much of the fest’s programming benefitted from a return to communal viewing, Charlie Shackleton’s As Mine Exactly, part of the Synapses programming slate, focused on providing a more intimate, personal approach to nonfiction filmmaking. Performed live to an audience of one via VR headset, Shackleton walks the viewers through his mother’s epilepsy, which he began presenting when he was a child, recreating conversations he had with his mother about the experience. Similar to how Zia Anger uses her de ella desktop screen and iMessage in her hybrid, nonfiction performance film, My First Film, Shackleton uses the VR headset as a canvas. There, he creates a space where he can show the viewer a sprawling timeline of his mother’s seizures, paintings and images that illustrate the spiritual and cinematic understandings of epilepsy, excerpts from his mother’s epilepsy diary–in which she describes one episode as “like watching a filmed version of herself that she’d rehearsed”– and even footage of her seizures that Shackleton shot to help diagnose what kind of epilepsy she had.
The approach here feels very much in line with Shackleton’s nonfiction short films, which often push the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking. For example, his 2018 short of him, lasting marks, was told entirely using archival images and onscreen text meant to approximate the process of viewing microfiche. By using VR as a medium, Shackleton can share intensely personal moments and reflections on how both he and his mother have recontextualized their trauma over time, and Shackleton sees it reflected back in his own work. The result is a truly intimate, but nonetheless cinematic, experience of a director trying to better understand how his past traumas have influenced his body of work, including the film being performed in real-time.
It’s been two years since True/False has happened on this scale, and there’s something really heartening about seeing so many people coming together, selling out screenings of challenging nonfiction films, engaging with them after leaving the theater, and feeling safe about doing it. Knowing that the “Best Last Festival Ever” is back and operating at nearly full capacity should give hope to other film festivals as they make their own comebacks.